Forward Observer: Election Legitimacy

The following comes from Sam Culper, principal intelligence analyst at Forward Observer, about the failure of governments and fears over perceived illegitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

I’ve been watching the Netflix series “Narcos” and have just about wrapped up Season 3. Narcos is a show about Pablo Escobar and the Colombian cartels in the cocaine trade of the 1990s.

Sure, there’s some security tradecraft and intelligence collection in the show, which in my opinion makes it worth the watch, but I found something more interesting:

Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar didn’t just run a cartel. He ran the entire city of Medellin and the province of Antioquia. He was untouchable. As one of the richest men in the world, he was more powerful than the Colombian president. But it wasn’t just his wealth that gave him power — it was his army of gunmen willing to die to carry out his orders and the overwhelming popular support he enjoyed in his home city.

In the show (and in real life), after a years long battle with the DEA and Colombian National Police, Escobar’s cartel is destroyed and he’s ultimately killed.

After Escobar’s death in the show, I thought, “Well, I guess that’s the end of the series.”

BUT…

The smaller cartels were battling for supremacy to fill in the power vacuum left by Escobar’s death. A clear victor emerges.

There’s an interesting dynamic here because it’s not just the competing cartels fighting for power. The Colombian National Police and their counter-narcotics units complete this circular firing squad where everyone is fighting against each other for power.

I look at this as an analogy of what happens when government loses legitimacy. We see it happen all over the world: the people lose faith in their public institutions — due to decades of corruption and ineptitude — and that’s one way you get failed states. That’s how you get competitors duking it out to fill a power vacuum.

Over the weekend, I perused the shelves of Barnes and Noble’s Current Affairs section, which was rife with anti-Trump books and warnings of the country’s impending fall into fascism. There were books on racism, sexism, religious bigotry (e.g., Christian), and every other flavor of imaginable intersectionality and victimhood. There were books about political resistance and civil disobedience, and books by conservative and progressive authors who lay all blame for every wrong in the world at the feet of their political opponents.

There are clearly a lot of grievances in America (real, imagined, and contrived).

Pending any change to the ballots, roughly 50 percent of the country is going to be unhappy about the results of next year’s elections. Roughly 30% is going to be irate. A smaller percentage may be moved to violence.

The legitimacy of elections may even fall into question again.

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of government legitimacy. Politicians can have all-time lows in approval ratings, we can impeach and remove our leaders, and elected officials can run the country into the ground — but as long as there are free and fair elections, change is always just a few years away. We at least have faith in the process, even if we don’t like the results.

But what happens when that “faith in the process” ends?

What happens if next year’s elections are disrupted?

What happens if there’s terrorism on the morning of Election Day that keeps millions of Americans from voting due to fear of being harmed?

What happens if a winner is declared, but there are valid claims of voter fraud that might overturn the results?

What is the “hanging chad” equivalent of the 2020 elections?

If there’s one thing that “keeps me up at night” — more than EMP, financial collapse, or any other catastrophic threat — it’s what’s going to happen with this election.

It’s a big, Big, BIG reason to think about the local effects of these potential events. We can’t focus solely on the primary event: what are the second- and third-order consequences? (Financial, economic, etc.)

I’m reminded of the power vacuum left by the death of Pablo Escobar. Even in that hectic period, his enemies didn’t miss a beat. Ours won’t either.

 

And here’s a reminder that Forward Observer will bring their Tactical Intelligence class to Tacoma, WA next June and Coeur d’Alene, ID in April.

Foreign Policy: The Coming Crime Wars

Foreign Policy recently published an article about future conflicts called The Coming Crime Wars. The article discusses how the number of non-state armed groups (that is, not an official army of a recognized country, but rather some other sort of armed group) is multiplying in civil conflicts around the world. Soldiers in these conflicts are with “drug cartels, mafia groups, criminal gangs, militias, and terrorist organizations” as well as official armies or rebel groups. So far governments are confused about how to deal with this complication.

In the classical view, criminal groups (such as mafias, gangs, and cartels) are not political actors formally capable of waging war. This means they can’t be treated as enemy combatants, nor can they be tried for war crimes. Yet, increasingly, such groups do advance tangible political objectives, from the election of corrupted politicians to the creation of autonomous religious states. What is more, they routinely govern, control territory, provide aid and social goods, and tax and extort money from the populations under their control. They also often collude with corrupt soldiers, police, prison guards, and customs officials to expand their rule. Put succinctly, cartels and gangs may not necessarily aim to displace recognized governments, but the net result of their activities is that they do.

Further, whereas the human cost of typical gang or mafia activity may be contained, the death and destruction that result from today’s crime wars are not. Millions of refugees and internally displaced persons have fled these gray-zone conflicts. But many of those who are dislocated are stuck in limbo, with most of them having been refused asylum, which—as codified in international refugee law, international humanitarian law, and by the International Criminal Court—is typically granted to people fleeing international and civil wars. Governments have typically been reluctant to recognize the dislocated as war refugees, because it would grant legitimacy to the crime wars. Yet with all the civilians killed and maimed, mayors and journalists attacked, families forced to flee genocide and disappearances, the violence generated by crime wars is indistinguishable from that generated by traditional war.

Crime wars are not going away…

This article echoes previous writings of authors like David Kilcullen who in Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla discusses some of the same issues. If you’ve done an area study for your location, you probably tried to identify local criminal groups or cartel activity. If this type of activity is having in civil disturbances around the globe, you can count on it coming to the US — if it isn’t already here.

The Pentagon made a video to highlight some of these issues as well, though it mostly discusses the difficulties in megacities.